Only five skaters and one goaltender took the ice for an optional practice at First Niagara Center on Wednesday morning with the Buffalo Sabres currently in a stretch of six games in 10 days leading into the holiday break.
One of those players was forward Tyler Ennis, who donned a red non-contact jersey in his first skate with the team since Nov. 24. Ennis has missed 11 games with an upper-body injury, but Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said that his status had moved closer to being upgraded from week-to-week to day-to-day.
"Yeah, day-to-day is what I am now," Ennis said. "We'll see how I come along here. I'll practice with the guys tomorrow and just continue to get my conditioning back, get some workouts but yeah, I feel good right now."
Another player on the ice Wednesday was forward Cal O'Reilly, who made his Sabres debut on Tuesday night in place of injured forward Marcus Foligno. Prior to Tuesday, O'Reilly's last NHL game came with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 12, 2012.
After sitting for five games since his recall on Dec. 5, the forward savored his long-awaited return.
"It was pretty exciting, it's been a couple of years since I played an NHL game," he said. "I'm pretty thankful for this organization to give me a chance, especially alongside my brother. It's a pretty special thing; not many people can say they played a National Hockey League game with their younger brother."
Only two others can say that they've done it for the Sabres. When Cal and Ryan O'Reilly were inserted into the lineup on Tuesday, they became the first pair of brothers to play in the same game for Buffalo since Bob and J.F. Sauve were teammates from 1980-1983.
Cal and Ryan did play once together against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the preseason. But, as they expected, sharing this game felt different.
"Yeah, because it was an actual regular season game," Cal said. "The preseason was pretty cool, we got some shifts together, but to be in an actual regular season game it means a little more and the game means something so it's even more special."
Cal found out he would be in the lineup prior to warmups, when it was determined that Foligno wouldn’t be ready to play. That 15-minute warmup, he said, was when the reality of his return struck him the most.
The Sabres lost 2-0, but the game still held a positive meaning for both brothers.
"Absolutely, yeah," Ryan said. "It's great seeing him out there … Obviously it wasn't the outcome we wanted but to play together at this level, it's pretty amazing."
As for the game itself, Cal played 6:46 on a line centering David Legwand and Nicolas Deslauriers. He won both of the faceoffs he took and recorded a blocked shot.
"It was OK," he said. "I just tried to keep it simple and kind of click with my linemates, make sure we were solid defensively and not get scored on. I think we did a pretty good job. Obviously we [didn't] win and there's always a little bit more [to give], but I think for a first game back it was OK."
"He's a really intelligent player," Ryan said. "I thought he did very well, he moved in the right areas, he was doing little details that helped their line be successful."
Bylsma said that Foligno remains day-to-day with an upper-body injury, so it remains to seen whether or not Cal's next chance will come against the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday night or beyond. When he does play again, he hopes to make more of an impact in the offensive zone.
"The more you play the more comfortable you get out there, the more confident you get carrying the puck making plays and creating some offense," he said." I think a few shifts we were hindered in our zone a little bit and we want to get in their end."
Defensemen Carlo Colaiacovo and Jake McCabe, forward Nicolas Deslauriers and goaltender Chad Johnson participated in the optional practice along with Ennis and O'Reilly. The Sabres also held an optional morning skate prior to the game against New Jersey on Tuesday.
All of this, Bylsma said, is part of managing the players' energy during a grueling stretch of the schedule. The Sabres have played four games in the past six days, flying from Calgary to Buffalo to Detroit and back again in the process.
The nature of those contests – all four were one-goal games at points of the third period – has made it even more difficult to manage his players' minutes.
"It's been a big part of the last two weeks when you look at scheduling," he said. " It's been not a lot of time on the ice and a lot of minutes in back-to-back games so there's a lot of managing of minutes, energy levels, and we'd like to get in games where you can manage everybody's minutes and spread them out."